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Bans on E-Cigarette Flavors Can't Be Justified by the 'Wildfire Spread' of Adolescent Vaping, Which Seems to Be Declining

Bans like San Francisco's hurt smokers by making the potentially lifesaving switch to vaping less attractive.

Vape LoungeVape LoungeLast week voters in San Francisco overwhelmingly approved a ban on the sale of "flavored tobacco products," including e-cigarettes. Several other local governments in California have recently imposed similar bans, and New York legislators are considering a bill that would prohibit the sale of "flavored e-liquid." Supporters of these measures, who say they want to protect teenagers from the temptations of vaping, give no weight to the interests of adult smokers who use e-cigarettes to quit, a process in which flavor variety plays an important role.

As in the controversies over "alcopops" and marijuana edibles, the prohibitionists argue that banning sales to minors is not enough; the government should also ban any feature that appeals to teenagers, even if it also appeals to adults. To justify that demand, they implausibly portray adolescent vaping as a growing public health emergency.

Three days after more than two-thirds of San Francisco voters agreed that mandating flavorless e-liquid was a reasonable response to the rising popularity of e-cigarettes among teenagers, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published survey data showing that in 2017 vaping declined among middle school students and remained steady among high school students after falling in 2016. E-cigarette alarmists were so flummoxed by reality's failure to fit their narrative that they insisted the survey must be wrong. "Study Says Vaping by Kids Isn't Up," read the Associated Press headline, "but Some Are Skeptical."

The skeptics had heard that teenagers are Juuling in schools across America, and they figured all that press coverage should translate into higher vaping rates. They suggested that survey respondents might not have realized Juul e-cigarettes are e-cigarettes.

The questionnaire used in the CDC's National Youth Tobacco Survey (NYTS) described e-cigarettes as "battery powered devices that usually contain a nicotine-based liquid that is vaporized and inhaled," adding that "you may know them as vape-pens, hookah-pens, e-hookahs, e-cigars, e-pipes, personal vaporizers or mods." The questionnaire's list of "brand examples" included NJOY, Blu, Vuse, MarkTen, Logic, Vapin Plus, eGo, and Halo. But not Juul! So maybe adolescent vaping really did go up last year.

The yearning for bad news is palpable in this passage from the A.P. story:

Last year, Juul became the top-selling e-cigarette brand, with more than $650 million in retail sales. That's due at least partly to aggressive marketing through Instagram and other social media, [Georgia State University researcher Jidong] Huang noted in a recent article in the journal Tobacco Control.

More data is needed to see how much of those sales were to kids, he said in an interview.

"But looking at the sales data, I think it's hard to say the use of e-cigarettes among teens is steady or declining," he said.

The fact that Juul grabbed more market share, of course, does not necessarily mean vaping became more common among teenagers, even assuming that they are disproportionately attracted to that brand.

Putting aside the recent decline in adolescent vaping, the percentage of teenagers who use e-cigarettes frequently has always been low. In the 2015 NYTS, for example, just 0.6 percent of middle school students and 2.5 percent of high school students reported vaping on 20 or more days in the previous month, and almost all of them were current or former smokers. To the extent that teenagers who otherwise would be smoking are vaping instead, that is an unambiguous gain in public health terms, since the latter habit is much less hazardous.

Despite the constant warnings that increased experimentation with e-cigarettes would lead to more smoking, consumption of conventional cigarettes by teenagers stubbornly continues to decline, reaching a record low last year in the Monitoring the Future Study, which began in 1975. According to the NYTS, the incidence of past-month smoking among high school students fell from 15.8 percent in 2011 to 7.6 percent in 2017.

Given these numbers, banning e-cigarette flavors is not likely to confer a measurable health benefit on teenagers and may even have a negative effect if it discourages those who smoke from switching to vaping. When you expand the analysis to include adults, the probability of harm increases, since vapers often report that flavor variety helped them quit smoking.

The Food and Drug Administration acknowledges that point. Last July, when it delayed implementation of its e-cigarette regulations, the agency said it was seeking public comment on "the role that flavors (including menthol) in tobacco products play in attracting youth and may play in helping some smokers switch to potentially less harmful forms of nicotine delivery." In March, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb elaborated on the public health benefit of e-cigarette flavors in March:

We must also consider how best to address flavors in non-combustible products like e-cigarettes—given both their clear appeal to youth but also the potential role certain flavors may play in helping some adult smokers transition to potentially less harmful tobacco products.

I've talked to ex-smokers, who've told me that they quit cigarettes altogether and that they now vape. And they've also told me it was the flavors that helped them make that transition off combustible cigarettes. Now I know anecdotes aren't the same as data. And the ANPRM [Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking] specifically seeks data on this issue. But these personal stories are important to me as we shape our overall approach to smoking cessation.

In a 2014 survey by E-Cigarette Forum, three-quarters of adult vapers preferred flavor categories other than tobacco, including fruit (31 percent), bakery/dessert (19 percent), and savory/spice (5 percent). Two-thirds of the ex-smokers said nontobacco flavors were important in helping them quit. According to a 2013 study reported in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, smokers who switch to vaping tend to prefer tobacco-flavored fluid initially but later switch to other flavors. Most reported using more than one flavor on a daily basis and said the variety made the experience more interesting and enjoyable.

Critics nevertheless view sweet flavors are inherently suspect. After the San Francisco ban passed, a researcher told Business Insider "most scientists believe flavorings are used to target teenagers." Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) likewise argues that the FDA should not tolerate e-cigarettes that taste good:

The craze among kids for e-cig flavors that resemble whipped cream, candy and cookies is not only a bad trend; it is a recipe for disaster that is fueling an outright addiction that appears to be getting worse, not better....It is high time to ramp up the pressure on and by the FDA so quicker action to rid the marketplace of kid-friendly e-cig flavors is taken. While the FDA has thankfully begun to move on this epidemic, those actions are slower moving compared to the wildfire spread of e-cig use among kids.

Never mind that "the wildfire spread of e-cig use among kids" perceived by Schumer coincides with what the CDC says is a decline in e-cig use among kids. The more fundamental problem is that Schumer seems incapable of conceiving that "kid-friendly e-cig flavors" also appeal to adults, which makes vaping more attractive as a harm-reducing alternative to smoking. The implication is that banning those flavors could be deadly to smokers who would otherwise switch. Anyone who ignores that prospect is only pretending to care about public health.

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  • Half-Virtue, Half-Vice||

    Fuck off, slavers.

  • Hugh Akston||

    There's good money to be made in selling flavored cigs and vape fluid to people in SF online or out of the trunk of your car.

  • BYODB||

    Until you get choked out by the cops, anyway.

  • Rhywun||

    The anti-tobacco smoking nicotine hysteria has really reached the level of a religion. NTTIAWWT. But no amount of appeal to empirical evidence will ever satisfy a power-hungry cretin like Schumer.

  • Zeb||

    Oh, I'm sure people would find a reason to be hysterical about it even if teens were only vaping nicotine free stuff.

  • My Dog Bites Better Than Yours||

    Do you know what else makes the popularity of something spread "like wildfire" among teenagers?

    Declaring something as "harmful to minors" and prohibiting them from having it.

  • Zeb||

    Then why is actual smoking not so popular with teens anymore?

  • Dillinger||

    SF wants to smell like poop and fish, not watermelon pina colada dammit.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    I blame season 2 of True Detective for any decline in teen vaping.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    NO SPOILERS!

  • Half-Virtue, Half-Vice||

    Dude Rachael McAdams looked fucking hot hitting that vape.

  • Jerryskids||

    More data is needed to see how much of those sales were to kids, he said in an interview.
    "But looking at the sales data, I think it's hard to say the use of e-cigarettes among teens is steady or declining," he said.

    It is true that it's hard to say that e-cigarette use is steady or declining, just as much as it's hard to say it's increasing or even skyrocketing, when you have no data to support any of these positions and yet this researcher doesn't shy away from the hard work involved in talking out his ass. It's perhaps somewhat easier for an economist like himself to do the ass-talking thing than it would be for a science researcher who's somewhat constrained by the scientific rule of "You're not allowed to just make up shit", but still, he deserves some credit.

  • General Skarr's Prize Petunias||

    Science researchers aren't constrained by that rule. Silly Jerrykids.

  • DajjaI||

    The problem is that vaping can trigger an addiction in the teenage brain. It's not just a phase, it can lead to long term use which progresses to other drugs. In fact Anthony Bordain admits to smoking as a kid, and look what happened to him.

  • Atlas Slugged||

    you really should stop sniffing glue

  • DajjaI||

    Children are dying from addiction because of stigma. Thanks for demonstrating it.

  • gormadoc||

    Are you parodying yourself now? You're an absolute mad lad.

  • DajjaI||

    No. Are you?

  • Atlas Slugged||

    Citation that vaping triggers addiction in the teenage brain? Citation that vaping leads to other drug abuse?

  • DajjaI||

    Discover how Big Tobacco has gotten into the e-cigarette market in hopes of attracting a new generation of addicts.

    Stop blowing smoke.

  • NoVaNick||

    Occasionally Dajjal/AddictionMyth makes sense-today is not one of those days

  • Atlas Slugged||

    In future, when we ask "who will think of the children?", we will know it is Dajjal/AM.

  • NoVaNick||

    more than two-thirds of San Francisco voters agreed that mandating flavorless e-liquid

    Who knew that 2/3 of San Franciscans were such stupid assholes?

  • perlchpr||

    Anyone who has ever read about the political situation there?

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Sevo?

  • NoVaNick||

    I knew them to be flaky, but thought they were tolerant about "lifestyle choices", or at least not so dumb to ban something that brings in considerable tax revenue to help build more doggie parks.

  • gormadoc||

    Tolerance just means we have to not look angry when we see them do things we don't like. That's why you ban them from getting the stuff in the first place; then you never even have to worry any looking angry.

  • NoVaNick||

    I had actually never heard of Juul until I started seeing news bits about it in the NYT and WaPO. Then, they started to appear at the local 7-11, so I bought one. They are not cheap ($50) for a starter kit, but man are they good! Much better than what I used before and I have been vaping for nearly 8 years and haven't touched a combustible ciggie in four years.

    Its not really a secret that the progs like Schumer, Warren, and most pols from deep blue states want to outlaw any form of enjoyable nicotine (they'll probably agree to allow nicotine suppositories coated with hot sauce). Maybe this will be what it takes to get certain demographic groups to quit voting for team blue.

  • albo||

    Vaping is for idiots. Personally, if I smell your idiotic fruit flavored vapor anywhere near me, I get the urge to force you to smell my knuckles.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Is "albo" shorthand sooper dooper secret code for "albino", as in you are advertising your extreme whiteness? Makes me wonder what you've been dragging your knuckles through, if not your own pant-shitting poop.

  • Zeb||

    And I'm sure all of your relaxation and leisure activities are totally smart, rational and useful.

  • gormadoc||

    Like commenting here?

  • Zeb||

    Commenting here is definitely for idiots.

  • ||

    I kinda wanna lick a jolly rancher and stick it to the exhaust fan on his workstation while he isn't looking.

  • BYODB||

    So there's a new moral majority is all I'm hearing, and it spans both parties. No surprise there, but boy tell a progressive that they're acting like a neo-puritan and they sure do get upset. Mostly just because they hate even the notion of a god that isn't the state, I suppose.

  • Robert||

    Nobody's answered what harm is done to teens by vaping.

    Do the vape restrictionists care about non-nicotine vape? How about CBD vape? THC vape?

  • Marc St. Stephen||

    By the reasoning of these anti-vaper/anti-smoker assholes, all alcoholic beverages with any flavor that might appeal to children should be immediately banned. I saw another article in Reason today about people getting stupider - QED.

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